What is Baptism?

Pastor Craig Carter

My daughter, Abby, lives in Pensacola and is attending a church of another denomination. I won’t say what it is but they talk a lot about being baptized.

In particular, finding out she was raised a Methodist, they have pointed out their objections to infant baptism and sprinkling. On a recent trip home, Abby told me their arguments sounded pretty good and she really didn’t know how to answer them. A leader from our congregation overheard our conversation and admitted that she too wasn’t exactly sure what we, as Methodists, believe about baptism. How about you? Do you know what we believe? Could you defend our position?

Baptism is admittedly one of the most confusing aspects of the Christian life and is undoubtedly the most debated doctrine of the faith. While the New Testament makes it clear that persons are to be baptized, many questions remain unanswered: Who is to be baptized? When are persons to be baptized? How are they to be baptized? 

Since the Bible gives little specific guidance on these matters, there is plenty of room for discussion and disagreement. As United Methodists, we steer a middle ground on baptism. Here’s a breakdown of what we believe and why. 

First of all, who should be baptized?

The United Methodist Book of Worship states that “Persons of any age are suitable candidates for baptism because Christ’s body, the Church, is a great family that includes persons of all ages” (p. 82).

Our founder, John Wesley, saw adequate scriptural support for both adult believers and the children of believers:

•    For adults: “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38)

•    For infants/children: everyone in a “household” was baptized when faith came (Acts 16:15, 33; 18:8)

It’s important to note that Christian baptism replaced the Hebrew custom of circumcision for God’s people. Also, while the New Testament does not command the baptism of infants, neither does it forbid it. Church tradition shows infants have baptized from the earliest of times.

We believe infants are suitable candidates for baptism because it is a sacrament. Sacraments are divinely-ordained “sacred moments” in which God works in special ways As United Methodist Christians, we recognize two sacraments – Holy Communion and baptism.  More than mere rituals or ordinances, sacraments are a means of grace. They are ways God shows us His favor and does something in/for us. The emphasis in baptism is not so much on what we are doing, it is on God and His gracious action. Do you see how this all relates to the baptism of infants?

Just because an infant is not aware of what is happening doesn’t negate what is happening. Our UM Book of Worship is absolutely correct when it states: “The infant being presented for baptism and the adult seeking baptism have more in common, spiritually speaking, than may at first appear. God’s grace has taken the initiative and is already at work in the lives of both…Both [now] need to grow in Christ within Christ’s family, the Church.” (pp. 82-83) God’s amazing grace is work in baptism – for infants and adults alike. 

I chose to baptize my own children when they were only a few months old (by “pouring” as influenced by my Baptist roots) because I didn’t want to deny my kids the opportunity to get an extra portion of God’s goodness and grace. We need all the help we can get in this life and I guess I see baptism of children like an inoculation at the spiritual level. It’s dramatic when a prodigal comes home to God, but I believe it’s even better for the children never to leave their Heavenly Father’s house. If baptism facilitates that happening, I’m all for it.

If that answers the who question of baptism, how is it to be done?

As United Methodists, we contend it may be performed by any of three methods: sprinkling, pouring, or immersion.

John Wesley argued that while immersion probably was the “ancient manner of baptizing,” sprinkling and pouring are supported by long-standing church tradition and various scriptures, such as, “For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:22b NLT). We recognize all three types because we view baptism as a sacrament. A sacrament is defined as “an outward, visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace.” Essentially, it means that what is happening on the outside of the person is not nearly as important as what is going on inside. Put another way: The amount of water doesn’t really matter as long as it is being received in faith.

Most of the debate about baptism involves what I’d call “majoring on the minors” (the who, the when, the how). I’d contend the “what” is the most important matter.

What happens when a person is baptized?

Here’s our denomination’s answer: “We believe Baptism signifies entrance into the household of faith, and is a symbol of repentance and inner cleansing from sin, a representation of the new birth in Christ Jesus and a mark of Christian discipleship.” (The Book of Discipline, p. 68)

Whether we are an infant or an adult, whether it comes by sprinkling or immersion, there are three things that take place when we are baptized. I call them the Three Rs of baptism:

1)  Regeneration. Jesus said, “I assure you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:5 NLT; cf. v. 3, “unless you are born again”). According to the New Testament, this new birth usually occurs at one’s baptism. “Repent and be baptized…in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38 NIV). But it isn’t the water that brings about the change, it is the grace of God that is received by faith. That’s why John Wesley thought it is possible to be born of the water, but not of the Spirit. He pointed out there are many baptized gluttons, drunkards, and liars. They have not become what they were made by their baptism – saints. Instead, they simply got wet!

In baptizing infants, we do not hold this is when they are born again (i.e. saved). It’s why the parents presenting the child are asked this question: “Will you endeavor to keep this child under the ministry and guidance of the Church until he/she by the power of God shall accept for him/herself the gift of salvation, and be confirmed as a full and responsible member of Christ’s holy Church?” (United Methodist Book of Worship, p. 104).

Still, at the very least, baptism demonstrates the potential of a new beginning. Every mode of baptism (sprinkling, pouring, immersion) symbolizes the washing away of sin (Acts 22:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Hebrews 10:22; 1 Peter 3:21).

Through baptism, we die to sin and our old way of life, and then we are raised with Christ to a new life in Him. Praise God for the possibility of regeneration!

2)  Reception. According to the Book of Acts, baptism is the normal entryway into the Church. “Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day – about 3,000 in all.” (Acts 2:41 NLT). Paul puts it this way, “But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:13b NLT). We acknowledge this fact in our Doctrinal Standards: “We believe Baptism signifies entrance into the household of faith…” (The Book of Discipline, p. 68). In the case of infants, it is not equated with full membership (that occurs at their profession of faith). But it does connect them with a Body of believers who will nurture them and instruct them in the way of salvation – thus providing another reason why parents want to baptize their children

As United Methodist Christians, we see baptism as the means by which we are brought into the fellowship of both the Church and a church. “Because baptism initiates us into Christ’s whole Church and not only into a denomination, United Methodists recognize al. Christian baptisms…” (United Methodist Book of Worship, p. 81)

We also believe baptism initiates us into a local congregation. Current church members make promises at baptism that are just as serious as those taken by the person being baptized (or by the parents presenting a child).

So baptism is not a mere ritual or a cute ceremony, it is the inauguration of a covenant. It is an agreement between a person and God and between a person and other persons. Through baptism, we are received into the Body of Christ and made a vital part of it.

Remember your baptism and be thankful!

3)  Remembrance: Our other sacrament, Holy Communion, has a heavy emphasis on remembering. Jesus told His disciples, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” In a similar way, the sacrament of baptism evokes the power of our memories. It reminds us of our former sinful state, of God’s love and forgiveness, to Whom we belong, of who we now are, of the future glory that awaits us (to name a few). The United Methodist Book of Worship states: “Baptism is an act that looks back with gratitude on what God’s grace has already accomplished, it is here and now an act of God’s grace, and it looks forward to what God’s grace will accomplish in the future.” (p. 81)

Remember you are baptized and rejoice!

I don’t know about you, but whenever I witness a baptism, I do some remembering of my own. If it’s an infant, I remember baptizing my children, Zac and Abby, and the pledge Lee and I made to raise them in the faith and the promise of God’s people to assist us. If it’s a child, youth, or adult, I remember my own baptism. At the age of 7, I made a profession of faith at the Forest Park Baptist Church in Joplin, Missouri. During a Sunday evening service in February 1966, I responded to the preacher’s invitation, walked down the aisle, was introduced to the congregation while standing on the front pew, and then was “dunked.” I remember stepping into ice cold water (the custodian had failed to use warm water) and when immersed, my feet came off the board and I fell under a second time. I was saved both spiritually and physically that day! But, more importantly, I remember feeling forgiven (washed of my sins) and feeling very special (entering the fellowship of the church).

What memory(ies) do you have of your baptism? If you don’t have any because it’s never happened, maybe it’s time to make one. The saving work of Jesus Christ can become operative in your life by being buried and raised with Him in baptism, with your guilty conscience sprinkled clean by being washed with pure water. We invite anyone interested in baptism to contact Pastor Terry Tatum at terry@mylhumc.net to discuss the process and requirements.

Watch my June 30, 2019 sermon: What is Baptism?

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